God saves His people to change them. Colossians 3:10 says that the new man we put on is “being renewed to a true knowledge [of God] according to the image of the One who created him.” This is likely a dual nod to 1:15 (where Jesus is referred to as God’s image) and more overtly, Genesis 1:27. God created human beings as (not merely in) His image to rightly relate to Him, rule for Him over His creation (this does not merely mean ruling over the animals, but possessing His authority to implement His will and agenda over the inhabited earth), and represent Him to the creation. The Fall, of course, severely truncated (though did not entirely erase) that. And here, Paul says part of God’s holy agenda is to redeem sinful men and sanctify them so they can, in fact, have His image fully restored and receive His creation intent here and now, as well as fully in the future.
It is in this context that Paul brings up the aspects of the new man. Recall he is writing to a church that is flirting with heresy about Jesus Christ. For Christ’s glory, Paul writes to exalt Him as He is—and then, tells His people what to do and be in light of those truths. Jesus as God, Savior, and resurrected and reigning Lord is supposed to do something to how you think, love, and live, Christian! Just as the first Adam so horrifically influenced and impacted you, so God has called the Second Adam to overwhelm you with grace, transforming power, and covenant blessing and love. What will it look like as the Lord transforms you to be His image? Paul gives us eight elements of the new man that we are to put on as robes of royalty.
A. Heart of compassion (v. 12 a)
The King James translates this phrase more literally as “bowels of mercies.” It refers to that part of the physical body (the upper intestine) where you feel things—fear, dread, excitement, love, tenderness. God designed the body to feel things there that are felt in the emotions. Paul is saying you should put on a heart that is touched easily and quickly with full, rich compassion for other people. And you ought not merely do compassionate things, but feel an inclination and affection and emotion that can be labeled “compassion.”
Moreover, did you notice the beginning of the verse? Note the “so”—in light of what he just said in verses 10-11, do this. And, the first phrase of verse 12: “as those who have been chosen by God.” Because God chose you, live this way. For He chose you “to be holy and blameless before Him in love” (Ephesians 1:4-5; cf. Philippians 1:9-11).
B. Kindness (v. 12b)
Only Paul uses this word in the New Testament. It is a Spirit-imparted goodness of heart expressed in attitude and action., often at personal cost. God is kind in this way to all people, rooted in the benefits of the cross that hold back His wrath against a sinful world, whether they are elect or not (Luke 6:35). Kindness flows out of a compassionate heart. Only God can work these things into the heart and life by His Spirit, as we are not kind in ourselves.
C. Humility (v. 12c)
This is the opposite of pride and arrogance. It is lowliness of mind, unpretentious behavior, preferring others before self—and more importantly, viewing self as small and insufficient (as we truly are!), and God as great and sovereign (as He truly is!) This attitude is closely related to the “fear of the Lord” described at length in both the Old and New Testaments.
D. Gentleness (v. 12d)
This is the idea of meekness. It is not weakness, but submissiveness under provocation. It is a desire to suffer rather than inflict harm or revenge on someone else. It is power under control. John Kitchen writes, “It points to a humble and gentle attitude which bears up under offense with patient submissiveness and without a move towards revenge.” Only the Holy Spirit can bring out this fruit in someone’s life.
E. Patience (v. 12e)
Paul uses this word ten of the fourteen times it appears in the Greek text. It carries the idea of a “long-suffering endurance in the face of indignities and injuries by others” (Kitchen). The stress is placed on patience with the difficulties of other people, while another Greek word emphasizes patience with adverse circumstances. (It should be noted, however, that—much like with the different words for love—drawing a hard-and-fast distinction between these ideas is nothing but an exegetical fallacy to be avoided by sound interpreters.) Of course, God is the greatest example of this kind of patience; it takes a long time for His wrath to be kindled and all the while He is lavishly blessing the impenitent (as well as the stubbornly unrepentant Christian) with life and many good things. O that we could have His patience towards others!
John Kitchen writes further that three of these virtues cover every aspect of life: “heart of compassion” deals with our attitude towards others and their difficulties; “humility” is our attitude towards self; “patience” is how we deal with others. Moreover, each of these graces has an outward expression: “compassion” is displayed in acts and attitudes of “kindness,” “humility” demonstrates “gentleness,” and “patience” is expressed in the two actions outlined in verse 13.
F. Forbearance (v. 13a)
“Bearing with one another” and “forgiving one another” are both present participles that identify a way (probably not the only way) in which the graces of verse 12 are to be put on. “Bearing with” is a weighty word which carries the idea of enduring with and holding out with difficult people and circumstances. It is lit. “to hold oneself back”—to demonstrate self-control and restraint in the face of unrelenting challenges and difficulty. The idea is to suffer long. Relationships with sinners require grace—lots of it! They require the humility to own the fallenness and wicked tendencies of our own flesh, and they require the endurance to put up with others’ human frailty, sin, shortcomings, blind spots, inflicted pain both intentional and not, misunderstandings, insensitivity, apathy, wrong perspectives/attitudes/beliefs, and idiosyncrasies.
Why must we be told this? Because we are often unbearable! We can be argumentative, angry, flippant, indifferent, cold, selfish, reactive, sarcastic. In short, we can be difficult. And with no forbearance, there is no unity and no peace. Jesus bears with you even now by grace. You must bear with others, and they must bear with you.
G. Forgiveness (v. 13b)
Forgiveness is not an option. It is a command! We must not only forbear others’ difficulties, but forgive them. We must have the discernment to see things for what they are (understanding how deeply human depravity pervades everything), but also the grace to recognize simple human weakness and limitation. And we must not hold any of these things against others, but release them, and love them still. The Greek word here carries the idea of giving freely or unconditionally as a gift. It is to show kindness or grace by personally absorbing the cost of a debt and thereby cancelling it, allowing the debtor to go free. And it is a present tense, which paints a stark picture of life in a fallen world (even and perhaps especially in the life of the church!). We must continually forgive, which describes both our attitude (we must keep short accounts and not allow the sins and weaknesses of others to create resentment or bitterness), but also the harsh reality that as long as we breathe there will always be more to forgive.
In putting on the new man, all rules of engagement that characterize the world and the flesh are to be put away. Things are different now. Instead of nursing grudges, withholding love, and cutting people off, there is to be a generous release of all debts and an invitation to welcome and friendship. Grasp the forgiveness you receive in Christ—for He has forgiven you of everything—and forgive everyone of everything. By faith show love to the other person. And sometimes, God will even bring reconciliation.
H. Love (v. 14)
Paul closes the section with this thought: Above everything else (this, not “in addition to” is likely the force of this word) put on love (lit., “the love”). Kitchen writes that it is “the love extended to us by God through the incarnate Christ and now extended through us to others by the indwelling Christ.” This love, Paul writes, is “the uniting bond of perfection.” The former part of the phrase likely refers to bringing all the graces together as a belt or sash, completing the outfit of the new man (though obviously love binds the church together as well). The latter is interesting. “Of perfection” is a genitive noun. This means it could be a descriptive genitive, making love the bond that indicates perfection—it binds all the virtues together in harmony, a harmony they would not have as discrete virtues. Or, the view I take is that it is an objective genitive, meaning love is the bond that perfects. Perfects what? Both the virtues and the corporate body of believers. When true biblical love for God and others has the victory, is purifies and sanctifies all the other graces through its lenses, and purifies and sanctifies the body of believers to properly love God and each other.
Oh Christian! God has rescued you from the dirt and death of your sin and raised you to the height of where Christ is, seated above all things. You are a man or woman marked with the victory of heaven, the coming kingdom that has and will one day fully take over and renew all things. This means, then, that you are to live like a citizen of that holy and conquering kingdom. These verses describe what that citizenship looks like and requires. May God give us all grace to live like this, to glorify the person and work of His incarnate, crucified, risen, reigning, and soon-coming Son!